Our Witnessing Must Be Sustained

Friday, May 1, 2015 - 5:49am

Our Witnessing Must Be Sustained

“The documented litany of police violence is now out in the open. There’s an actual theme here that’s being made evident by the digital revolution. It used to be our word against yours. It used to be said — correctly — that the patrolman on the beat on any American police force was the last perfect tyranny. Absent a herd of reliable witnesses, there were things he could do to deny you your freedom or kick your ass that were between him, you, and the street.” David Simon

Baltimore burned. Is burning. Has been burning.

The so-called “riots” in response to the death of Freddie Gray make for “good” television and social media fodder, turning everyone into de facto witnesses. Like an earworm, the riots find you — whether you’re an old school nightly news watcher or a new school Twitter stream swimmer. People on the radio are talking about it. The parents at drop off are talking about it. When you call your mother, she says, “How about Baltimore? Wow.” It becomes the weather, at least for a few days. You can’t help but attend to its existence in some way, even if it’s small and passing.

But here’s the thing: I don’t want my attendance to deadly abuse of power to be passing. I don’t want “breaking news” to organize my moral energy.

It’s got me thinking: How consistent, how fierce, how wise is my witnessing?

A man raises his fists during an outdoor concert by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in support of the community in Baltimore, Maryland.

(Andrew Caballero-Reynolds / Agence France-Presse / Getty Images.)

This question feels even more urgent and relevant at a moment when our witnessing has been so weaponized. We can spread the word faster than ever before about injustice via our connections online. We can hold the corrupt and cruel accountable through rapidly mobilized crowds that coalesce online or off — signing petitions, protesting in the streets, boycotting or otherwise disrupting the bottom line or business as usual. We can electrify a massive flood light of shame (a tactic with a shadow side, to be sure) directly onto someone powerful so there is nowhere for them to hide on God’s green earth or World Wide Web.

In light of the fact that “witness” — my capacity to pay attention, get outraged, and move with a crowd of people demanding consequences — has been made even more powerful in recent years, how am I, how are we, leveraging that power? When and for whom? And for how long?

If the moral arc of the universe is long, as Martin Luther King so famously said, than our witnessing has to be sustained.

It can’t begin with the headlines and expire with the hashtags. It has to exist in a different time-space continuum than the one where our news cycle keeps maniacally, and too often shallowly, churning. It has to be rooted in a deeper commitment to our own humanity and the humanity of others. What does the world look like that I want my daughter to grow up in? Where do I direct my gaze and channel my power and privilege in order to co-create that world?

A young boy tries to keep time with a drum line during a protest after the funeral of Freddie Gray on April 28, 2015 in Baltimore, Maryland.

(Andrew Burton / Getty Images.)

Part of my struggle around this question is logistical, mundane almost. I’m a busy person, as are most people. My attention is spent on such an endless array of private concerns: feed the toddler, feed myself, meet the deadline so I can get paid, pay the car payment, get the groceries, clean up the toddler's never ending trail of odds and ends, call my mother, connect with my partner, dip into Facebook, floss my teeth. Where does moral action fit in all of this? Between Facebook and flossing? The question disgusts me. And yet it’s honest.

Surely the most sustainable activism comes from self-interest, not altruism. It’s in my interest to live in a safer, less racist world, no doubt, but I’m privileged enough that this is more of an abstraction than a daily, internalized urgency. Privilege leads to a sort of privatized complacency that is at the heart of so many of white, middle class Americans' most unforgivable moral failings. I see that. I want to be better than that. Yet, I struggle to direct my wanting. I struggle to set my gaze somewhere that feels worthy of the injustice I abhor.

There is no easy answer because we don’t live in a world with easy problems, of course. I must keep asking the questions of myself, of my people. I must keep modeling for my daughter that her duty for enjoying the delights of this world is to also see its indignities and take them personally, to examine her own actions fiercely and endlessly, to do so in the context of her own privilege.

A protestor holds a sign in support of Freddie Gray as baseball fans peer through the gates of Oriole Park Stadium at Camden Yards trying to watch the Baltimore Orioles play the Chicago White Sox in an empty stadium on April 29, 2015.

(Andrew Caballero-Reynolds / Agence France-Presse / Getty Images.)

Before there was breaking news about Baltimore, before Freddie Gray’s spine and story were broken eternally, thousands of people perished at the hands of police. According to the latest report available, published in 2011, 4,813 people died in custody of local and state law enforcement between 2003 and 2009.

So this “theme” — in the words of David Simon — has long been developing, even if it’s just now reaching its rightful audience through the “digital revolution.” Freddie Gray has become its central character. The protestors its protaganists. The “perfect tyranny” is preventing kids from getting on school buses and the world is watching.

It’s one of the most complex, urgent American stories being told. The cameras might stop rolling, but it won’t end anytime soon. Don’t let it. Keep reading. Keep watching. Keep listening. Keep looking for a way to be a part of the crowd with its hands on the moral arc, bending, bending, bending. However long it takes.

Kailah Johnson, 5, a pre-k student home from school with citywide closure, joined her mother in a neighborhood clean up crew the morning after citywide riots on April 28, 2015 in Baltimore, Maryland following the death of Freddie Gray.

(Mark Makela / Getty Images.)

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Courtney E. Martin

is a columnist for On Being. Her column appears every Friday.

Her newest book, The New Better Off: Reinventing the American Dream, explores how people are redefining the American dream (think more fulfillment, community, and fun, less debt, status, and stuff). Courtney is the co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network and a strategist for the TED Prize. She is also co-founder and partner at Valenti Martin Media and FRESH Speakers Bureau, and editor emeritus at Feministing.com.

Courtney has authored/edited five books, including Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists, and Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: How the Quest for Perfection is Harming Young Women. Her work appears frequently in The New York Times and The Washington Post. Courtney has appeared on the TODAY Show, Good Morning America, MSNBC, and The O’Reilly Factor, and speaks widely at conferences and colleges. She is the recipient of the Elie Wiesel Prize in Ethics and a residency from the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Centre. She lives with her partner in life and work, John Cary, in Oakland, and their daughters Maya and Stella. Read more about her work at www.courtneyemartin.com.

Share Your Reflection



Thank you Courtney. A challenge I struggle with in these "hyper-connected" times. Your thoughts reminded me of Zynep Tufekci's Ted Talkon why social change is easy to organize and hard to win. Thanks again for your contribution and your challenges.

I've never seen it. Thanks so much for the recommendation!

Powerful words, dear Courtney. You speak truth with passion and challenge. How do we best live out our witnessing? Especially those of us who come from privilege.

Thank you Courtney for such a poignant response to the situation. I've been struggling with the medias heightened use of the word "riots" vs. "protesters" having witnessed the protests here in Oakland last fall. I had several of those "How bout those protests?" conversations with my mother calling from the East Coast then and there was a lot of misinformation I had to dig out of her head. It's a longer conversation for sure but I appreciate your ability to have a hard conversation with yourself and asking others to do the same. I always appreciate your thoughts.

Thank you so much, Fade.

My wife sent me this. I have read it three times now, trying to get past the recruitment of arm chair activists that are too busy with life but should engage regardless. Your question "HOW WISE IS MY WITNESSING" is brilliant! sadly it's a mere blip of self examination that you should endeavor to use more upon your own reporting. From a moment of brilliance I see an article that falls short, pandering statistics of fear and abuse, and what feels like a call to action based on that. I was hoping for a more cautionary tale of the dangers of over reacting based on social media coverage largely focussed on the sensational. You have scratched the surface regardless, because how "wise is your witnessing" is the question we all need to be asking. I think that is a deeper well you should explore more critically, instead of simply reposting facts of abuse.

Thanks for the feedback Scott. I'm grateful that you read this once, much less three times! Can you say more about "pandering statistics of fear and abuse"? I'm not sure what you're referring to.

I don't think that for sentient people who were over the age of 10 or 12 in 1968, and who had access to a TV set that summer, the true nature of U.S. "police" only became apparent with the "digital revolution". The young people who went to Chicago to protest the Vietnam war outside the Democratic convention in the summer of 1968 were set upon by a vicious mob of brutal and sadistic knuckle-dragging "police" dressed in riot gear and armed with wooden clubs and god only knows what else. It was that summer, when I was 14 years old, after I witnessed the orgy of violence unleashed on those unarmed and vulnerable young citizens by the Chicago mayor, Richard J. Daley that I formed my opinion of the nature of "police" in America. I was revolted by the spectacle, and I have never forgotten it. This is not "just" a problem of the murder of young black males in U.S. cities. Middle class voters who think THAT need to become familiar with the long and sordid list of frequent felonious assaults and murders committed by "police" against people of EVERY ethnicity. As if the ethnicity of the victims mattered, which it doesn't. And the beat goes on, and on, and on... The people of this country need to wake up to the fact that there is, and has long been, a SEVERE disparity between the psychological profile and minimum IQ which would prudently be REQUIRED to qualify someone to walk the streets armed with deadly weapons and a license to kill, and the actual characteristics and qualifications of the individuals in the job right now. They, and their supporters and apologists are, in my opinion, the greatest threat to U.S democracy and the rule of law. The citizens of many, many countries have awakened too late to similar threats within their own societies, and ended up regretting it. Examples of countries that have walked the path down which we're headed (and their "leaders") would be Spain (Franco), Germany (Hitler), Russia (Stalin), China (Mao), Cambodia (Pol Pot), Argentina (various generals), Chile (Pinochet) and too many other instances to mention here. The big threat is, that if the U.S. abdicates its traditional role as the global advocate of human rights, there will be no America to bail us out or even to provide blowback. I would contend that it's not the "digital revolution" that got this existential threat out in front of the public. It seems that the evidence was in everybody's face, but everybody had their eyes closed. Until now. And, given the things I have seen and heard over the past 47 years, I don't understand the sudden awakening.

You ask "where does moral action fit in".
I read an old New Yorker profile about a major economist at the world bank or IMF who was born in Taiwan, but as a young adult, defected to China. When asked about his cautious policies in opening China up economically he used a metaphor of "feeling for the stones" - of crossing a river in which you can't actually see your feet, and you are feeling for stones to set each foot on as you take each step.
I like this metaphor a lot. I feel it has value in a world in which the opportunities for exposure to news and, as you say, to influence it, are rapidly changing all the time. I'm not interested in snap judgments, but in exploring ways to build sustainable relationships with tough problems - relationships that respect who I am, my limitations and gifts, as well as the issues I wish to relate to.